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Coming Up Harlem

A revival of the fabled New York community inspires pride and controversy

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At 6:30 one recent morning, Paulette Gay was already working at The Scarf Lady, her four-year-old boutique on Lenox Avenue, a faded Harlem thoroughfare showing vivid signs of renewal. Because the sidewalk is normally deserted at that hour, Gay was surprised to see someone peering in the store window—a giant of a man with a shaved head and piercing eyes. He looked familiar. Gay stuck her head out the door and said, “Aren’t you—?”  

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He was. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the basketball great, who was born in the neighborhood and had long been a celebrated resident of Los Angeles , was back in Harlem . Gay asked him what he was doing out so early. “He explained that, being a very private person, he prefers to stroll around before anyone else is out,” she says. (At over 7- foot-1 and with a famous visage, he undoubtedly has trouble going unnoticed.) Abdul-Jabbar bought a town house in Harlem this past winter, according to Kareem Productions.

 

He joins a wave of black artists, activists, scholars and home-seekers lately drawn to one of the world’s signature African-American communities. The poet Maya Angelou and the singer Roberta Flack have bought houses in Harlem . Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is among the nation’s best-known intellectuals, is on the hunt for a Harlem town house.

 

Contributing to Harlem’s cachet is America’s most renowned commercial tenant, Bill Clinton. His office occupies the top floor of a building on 125th Street, the neighborhood’s main artery. The former president has launched the Harlem Small Business Initiative program, which has provided a dozen struggling or fledgling businesses with professional consultants. “I wanted to be a good neighbor, not just a tourist attraction,” says the former president. “I wanted to make a difference in my community. And that meant bringing in resources and talent to help out.”

 

Harlem, a community in northern Manhattan that hit bottom in the 1980s when poverty, neglected housing and drug-related crime took their toll, is enjoying a lively second renaissance. Some Harlemites dismiss the resurgence as little more than a real estate boom, because the neighborhood’s magnificent 19th-century town houses are being snapped up at a rapid rate. You’ll also hear that the cultural scene doesn’t compare with Harlem's first flowering, in the 1920s, which was animated by extraordinary creativity in politics, the arts and especially the written word. But if it’s true there are no stand-ins today for fiery W.E.B. Du Bois, gentle Langston Hughes or patrician Duke Ellington, the second renaissance is still taking shape.

 

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